It was a cold Wednesday evening at Ewood Park where Nemanja Vidic a.k.a The Hardest Man who ever lived, The Serbian Assassin or simply “Vida” stepped out to make his Manchester United full debut.
It was a disaster.
United lost the match 4-3 to a decent enough Blackburn side managed by ex-red Mark Hughes. To say United’s defending was slack that February evening would have been like saying Cheryl Cole’s singing ability is possibly in question. Vidic was an odd looking fellow, even by the standards of Premier League centre-backs. Tall, lanky and a face that made him look like a backwoods extra from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3. Blackburn made him look like a man from another sport taking up association football for the first time.
Vida looked all at sea in his first several months on the job, as did his fellow January arrival Patrice Evra – who had an even more brutal examination in a Manchester Derby. One-paced, physically weak and the positional sense of a hedgehog on a motorway, it looked like £7 million had been flushed down the Old Trafford toilets. Paul Scholes – a man never short of an opinion or two these days – gave a genuinely intriguing insight into that brutal baptism in Blackburn and the resultant aftermath:
Nemanja must have realised quite early on that he was not strong enough to play in the centre of defence at that time, so he did something about it.
For the next year, every time I walked past the gym, I would see Nemanja in there lifting weights. He turned himself into a big, strong centre-half who was capable of knocking strikers out of the way.
Hard work is exactly a summation of what got Vidic over the top as one of the two best centre halves in the world at his peak. The other centre half was of course Vidic’s long term partner, Rio Ferdinand – who himself had an even worse night operating in midfield. In fact simply the word “hard” is one that may well be a word chiselled onto Vidic’s gravestone.
Vida was the spiritual successor to a long line of United hardmen. Keane, Robson, Stam, Bruce, Pallister, Hughes, Buchan, the list goes on. All men who had the tough and uncompromising mentality of a military drill instructor in ‘Nam. Men who used to frighten seven shades of s**t out of opposition attackers before even getting their hands on them., Vida, a Serbian centreback, standing at six feet two, close cropped hair and with the cold, blue eyes of a seasoned assassin was a man made to enter such a pantheon from the moment he found his feet and set about wreaking glorious revenge on opposition for that turbulent first six months.
Yet for me to rattle out 800 or so over the top words saying how hard Vida was purely as a means for me to show off my ability to mobilize a thesaurus would be to do the man and the player a disservice.
Because all of those great men he joined had something in common. They were hardmen that could play. They were thinkers as well as doers Men whose intimidating toughness was allied with the deft, technical ability of a classical guitarist. This is Manchester United, so you better be able to play a bit son and indeed he could. Not only were Vidic and Ferdinand physically imposing they could play better football than most attackers. Sweeping ranges of passing that could clear The Pennines and land on a twenty pence piece, the ability to dribble like the best wingers around and a brain that could think five moves ahead. Vidic could kick you in the air then dance down the field with the ball and quite a sight it was. Or, if you were lucky centre forward, you didn’t get a kick, you just never saw the ball and you left the field wondering what the hell just happened.
Indeed Scholes confirmed this ability himself with his accounts of Vidic in training. Vidic fancying himself as a number 10, didn’t miss a chance in training to show off his full repertoire of skills. Just imagine the sight of that dead eyed Serbian motoring towards you as a centre half, scaring the living daylights out of ya’ before laying off the deftest of passes to a teammate. It was unfortunately a sight we were often not privy to as fans. However, we were more than happy with what we got. Commitment, passion, leadership, fire, heart, a love for the shirt and a disarmingly friendly, laid back demeanour off the field. Vida was a man you felt you could sit and have a drink with before heading into battle.
No matter the place, the form we were in or the opposition in front of us, United could walk out ten feet tall with The Serbian assassin among the ranks. Farewell Vida, let’s hope for a glorious retirement befitting of one of the game’s great warriors and a bonafide icon at Old Trafford.